As the nation continues to deal with the fallout of the capitol riots on January 6th, we’ve all felt the bombardment of questions raised from the news cycle to social media, and everything in between. These regard what the country’s response, or responses, should be. Should Trump be impeached? Should the nation beef up the police state and surveillance state? When is it wrong for social media platforms to censor and deplatform its more prolific users, if ever?
I won’t be offering my input right now on those inquiries; instead, I want to overshoot the short-term right now, look at the long-term both in the events which preceded the riots last week and where we go from here, and ask “how did we even get to such a tipping point? To such a flashpoint?”
First, I want to preface this piece up front with the assertion that there’s no doubt in my mind that President Donald Trump bears a weighty responsibility for the events of January 6th. I’ve made the case before that issuing rhetoric for weeks and months on end that serves only to undermine the public’s trust and faith in our electoral systems, especially on the heels of a Presidential Election, can only bear distressing results, and it is a cycle that Trump has made himself a part of which must be broken.
I should also stress too that those who took part in the riots last week had agency, no question. Actions have consequences, and when you pummel a police officer with a fire extinguisher or steal government property or wear what is certainly a tasteless headdress (yet no doubt will probably become 2021’s most widely-circulated Halloween costume), there must be legal repercussions.
Now, with all that out of the way, again I stress “just how the hell did we even get to such a tipping point?”
In any other ideal scenario, if and when an incumbent President loses a Presidential election fairly, yet purports anyway (with his lawyers mind you) that he was the victor who was cheated out of triumph because of a grand conspiracy involving Democrats, Republicans, Iran, Dominion, Hugo Chavez, and… f it, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew too, he would rightfully be laughed off by the American populace, and a transition of power would occur seamlessly two months later.
But the former did not happen. As we all know by now, Trump, his lawyers, cable news pundits, and congressional Republicans did in fact set a pile of tinder aflame, and then fanned the flames of the premise that systemic and nationwide election fraud had in fact cheated Trump out of a victory and had handed the election to President-elect Joe Biden.
Dozens upon dozens upon dozens of subsequent court cases, filings and lawsuits, most of which tied back to Trump, were tossed to the wayside. In spite of Trump and his lawyers having no real leg to stand on to back up their claims, it still evidently wasn’t enough to quell hordes of reactionary and unshakeable minds from storming the capitol last week. Many had high hopes their ill-fated “revolution” would be enough as a last-ditch effort to protect their sanctimonious democracy.
And yet even as the country rationalizes and scrutinizes over the event, we also risk missing an evaluation of that pile of tinder I alluded to. I cannot shake the feeling this last week that there was an undercurrent – one fueled by deep-seated nihilism, rampant polarization, potent distrust in elites and mainstream media, and complete exasperation at being locked down in the middle of a pandemic with nothing to rely on but crumbs tossed by the federal government. One which was perhaps two decades in the making. One that produced some of the most malleable, cynical and fatalistic individuals that Trump and much of the GOP unapologetically goaded into what transpired at the capitol.
In Matt Taibbi’s book Hate Inc., he makes the case for why our mainstream press soundly and fiercely makes the case each day to pit Democratic and Republican voters against each other. After 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union, cable news needed a new “villain”, and they settled on each other, according to Taibbi.
Repeal of the fairness doctrine and the Telecommunications Act also helped usher in a new era over the last two decades where talk show and late night show pundits validate a specific echo chamber each of their viewers tune in for, and before long, the worst possible caricatures of each other become an emblem for what their “side” represents.
To Republican voters, every Democrat represents feverish censorship, being anti-white, and wearing six colors in their hair, while to Democrat voters, each Republican is a white supremacist sympathizer that wants to see an America more reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale, and bounces between pizza restaurants to investigate baseless conspiracies.
The culture war in this country has a potency that pierces through and makes a burrow for itself in many voters on the right.
And last week, we saw just how far to the ends of the Earth some are willing to go to in order to preserve that culture. Gun rights, socialism, abortion, ‘Black Lives Matters’, riots in the streets, and forever-lockdowns are buzz words and phrases used to sell an existential crisis to right-wing voters which says such cultural issues will be at the centerpiece and mercy of a Democratic politician’s administration – be it Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, or Joe Biden, it’s all the same to them.
And pundits themselves cannot bear all the blame. Because even when voters – both on the left and right – shut out the 25/8 news cycle, politicians themselves will be there to feed into their premature beliefs.
Think back to how many times on the campaign trail Trump tried to – and successfully in some areas mind you – paint Biden and Kamala Harris as radical socialists who would, by their very nature, compromise the standing and legacy of the country, rather than fall back on the more economic-friendly/populist rhetoric he was issuing throughout 2015 and 2016. He stoked anxious anticipations of whether a Biden administration would advocate for nationwide lockdowns in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, rather than fight for ambitious relief and fiscal stimulus as Congress was, time and again, gridlocking on a relief bill.
And the GOP was happy to take these cues from Trump. During a debate preceding the Georgia runoff elections, now former Senator Kelly Loeffler repeatedly accused her opponent Raphael Warnock of being a “radical liberal”, in the hopes that the label would stick and that Warnock’s calls in the past for progressive notions such as “socialized medicine” would scare away Georgians.
The culture war alone ended up not being enough though, and had Trump’s or Loeffler’s political instincts been sharper, rather than threaten voters with a good time by warning about “socialized medicine”, they should have instead towed the line on economic rhetoric that could serve to improve upon the material well-being of voters. Such rhetoric regarding the $2,000 stimulus checks held up in the Senate is believed to be a major factor that decided the victories of Warnock and Jon Osoff, both of whom were in support of the cash relief.
Those on the right that have cut out the news cycle from their lives seem to have resorted to taking their leaders – in this case Trump – more at face value, perhaps because of a complete breakdown of trust between the voters and the press. Look at it this way, the general skepticism and distrust of the highly-corporatized news cycle many of us have is completely warranted. If one’s track record included botched interpretations and assessments regarding the Iraq War, the financial crisis, the 2016 presidential election, and “Russiagate”, you would probably trust that individual about as far as you could toss them.
Ordinary and healthy skepticism towards the press and towards cable news, found in many Americans such as myself, has evolved into a much more vigorous cynicism found in a faction of Trump’s base. So much so, that for the press to collectively assert one position – for example, that Joe Biden fairly won the 2020 presidential election – is to mean that their previous track records automatically invalidate their judgment, and therefore, to Trump’s base, the opposite – that Trump in fact was the real victor – must be true.
Finally, there is the Covid-19 pandemic, which I believe, for ten months, has borne the fruit of many disastrous tolls, namely mentally and financially, on much of the populace.
Now I certainly do not mean to cover every individual present at the capitol riots in such a blanket statement as “they were all impoverished, low-income, down-on-their-luck constituents.” The photos depicting rioters with tactical gear, combat armor, and even that tacky headdress do not paint a picture of each participant being especially financially insecure. Does the son of a State Supreme Court judge or the husband of a physician sound like they’re people who are strapped for cash?
All that being said, I have worried for months on end that a steady stream of lockdowns and stay-at-home-orders have left many feeling cooped up and utterly frustrated at the crumbs the government is tossing at them in terms of relief. Even after 2 massive relief pills passed Congress within nine months of each other, 8 million Americans have fallen below the poverty line since May. 29% of Americans lost their health care coverage by the end of 2020, many through employer-based coverage. 54 million face food insecurity. 40 million could face eviction.
Meanwhile, as much of the populace stays cooped up indoors, tensions, depressions and anxieties flare. Relapses in drug addiction are escalating. When the country seems to be going to hell in a handbasket, and in walks the President addressing his base as “patriots” and encouraging them to “fight like hell” to “stop the steal“, in some people’s minds, the ‘make-or-break’ call-to-action could not be clearer.
This of course should not be viewed as a way to excuse the rioters, but instead, should be viewed as a highlighting of contributing factors that drove many in D.C. last week to literally and desperately lay down their lives for Trump’s sake, risking arrest and jail time in the process. Some, my own family included, simply inquired, as a reaction to the riots and in a dumbfounded state – “was ruining your lives and facing years in jail worth it?”
Maybe to some of them, it literally was.
Humor me if you will and imagine that the events of the last twelve months play out the same, except now Bernie Sanders (the man who in fact always speaks of a “revolution” in his rally speeches) has fairly lost the 2020 election to Trump. He then spends two months bringing forth lawsuits to challenge the results, repeatedly insists that the election was fraudulent, and finally eggs on many of his supporters to gather at the capitol on the very day Congress certifies the results, with a wink-wink attitude about it no less. Remember, there are many out there from the Sanders camp that harbor resentful sentiments of the DNC and Democratic establishment for their stalwart efforts to try and successfully keep Sanders from the nomination both in 2016 and 2020.
Yes, of course Sanders and Trump as politicians cannot even be compared on the same pedestal, but the point above is to underscore that people will often look to a political cause, hijack it, and exploit it as an excuse to act upon their “burn-it-all-down” mentality, all the while dressing up their violence as patriotic or as a revolution or just them doing their duty.
It’s political nihilism cultivated by a disgust with everything laid out above. The pile of tinder exists independently of Trump, and it exists in the most extreme corners of the Democratic base, Republican base, and everything in between.
So I believe that the proper response to the capitol riots is not an expansion of the police state or the surveillance state. It’s not expelling Trump and numerous GOP congressmen and senators from D.C. It’s more fiscal stimulus. It’s more funding into the Paycheck Protection Program. It’s more freezes on pending evictions. Lift the lockdowns and relieve the populace from the risks of suicide, relapses, and overdoses.
And in the long-term, the country needs a media system that will not dip its toes in both sides of the political spectrum to play “both sides”, but rather, will abstain from complete commitment to any side, and pit voters against the elites rather than against each other. The country must bring an end to the cycle of undermining trust in our presidential elections.
Even with Trump’s latest conciliatory remarks urging no violence, it may be too late at this point to put the genie back in the bottle.
But without reform or a response to the aforementioned, I have a sinking feeling that even a successful impeachment effort against Trump is not enough to prevent somebody else four years off into the future from eyeing a newly-bundled pile of tinder set at their feet, and lighting their match.
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